On knowing when to take my own damn advice

I remember well the week leading up to my sophomore year spring break. I was in the midst of a busy semester that consisted of school board elections, meetings and my first longer project. I was ready to flee from Columbia as soon as I made my Thursday night deadline.

Because I can remember acutely how I felt sitting in the newsroom that Thursday at midnight, I started imparting a very specific kind of advice. Since then, the first thing I would tell new reporters on my beat was to make sure to take some time for themselves when they felt near a breaking point. I’ve probably repeated that sentiment to three or four iterations of my beat, not to mention countless peers and students who ask for advice on working at the Missourian.

But of course, as we all are wont to do, I failed to take my own advice just two quick years later. Before I could leave for spring break this year, I had to finish a first draft of each of the two stories I’ve been working on for Intermediate Writing. I didn’t have a single word written on Monday, the cherry on top of a frantic month of reporting and trying to make up for inconvenient snow days.

Suffice it to say, I turned in my drafts after having spent a solid week compressing my writing process. Normally I’d take probably twice as much time to go back through notes, transcribe interviews and plan out drafts, but not this time. By Thursday at 6:20 p.m., I sent off 112 total inches of copy and didn’t look back once I set foot in Shakespeare’s. Phew. I did it.

And I had an interesting bit of self-discovery along the way. I nailed down my process to get from reporting mode to writing mode. For all those inquiring minds, here’s a brief sketch:

  1. Transcribe all notes and interviews and get them in one place. Make sure studies and documents have been read and annotated.
  2. Print out said notes and documents, and read through them, labeling sections in longhand based on loose themes or subjects
  3. Write a brief outline, mostly consisting of orders of subjects and descriptions for ledes/nut grafs. Also include which parts of interviews were most important to get in.
  4. Take the outline and, side-by-side with the printed notes, start writing, crossing out sections as you go. It’s easiest to write based off one interview, study or subject at a time and then combine sections, but this might vary. A squiggly line means something was used, while short diagonal slashes mean the section should be cut. Write until you think you’ve used everything.
  5. Mess with the structure until you can tolerate it, refine the nut graf and the lede, do cursory editing. Decide whether you included voice or just rambled incoherently.
  6. Close you eyes and hit “send.” Hope for the best.

While the drafts were my primary exit ticket, I had grand plans to work on my annotated bibliography and research paper proposal for other classes during my week “off.”

But the best laid plans of mice and men, they say, often go awry. And awry they went, though not in a bad way.

I decided, after an almost seven hour drive back home to Chicago, that I wouldn’t be doing much work while I was home. I deserved a little break, right? I could spare the time, I told myself. Plus, I had various editors urging that in no uncertain terms, I was to take some quality time for myself. A move, I imagine, that probably benefits their well-being as much as my own.

So, since last Friday, I’ve slept, eaten, cooked, enjoyed Pesach with my family, shopped, watched mindless television, and just plain vacationed for a change.

This really isn’t a writing-centric post this week, but that shouldn’t discount its importance. To be a good writer and reporter, I need to be able to give my all to my work. To be able to give my all, I need to be in relatively good humors. And to be in good humors, I need the occasional bit of time off. I’ll return to Columbia well-fed, well-rested and with a couple more sweaters to my name.

Moral of the story: everyone can spare some time to relax and recharge. And even when I forget to let myself off the hook from time to time, I’m grateful I have editors and parents who don’t mind giving me a nudge in the right direction.

 

Advertisements

Tips from a pro part 2: On mission statements, voice and negative reinforcement

Much like last week, our class got to visit with a professional journalist. This week, Roy Peter Clark joined us and offered us tips of a range of subject, from writing mission statements, to using voice, to figuring out how to stay motivated to write creatively. In preparation for the discussion, Jacqui had us read an essay he wrote about getting, of all things, a colonoscopy and one story about the scandal involving Joe Paterno. My takeaways:

1. Go big or go home. When talking about mission statements, one of my classmates asked Clark what the most difficult or easy ones were for him to write. He didn’t explicitly answer the question at first, but he did say that for some stories, the best approach was an overt one.

For the colonoscopy story, Clark said he went against a maxim he wrote that advises writers to use understated language for serious stories and overstated language for lighter ones. “Roy,” he told us he said to himself, “Be ready to break your own rules.” Although on it’s face, a personal essay about a colonoscopy seems light-hearted, Clark said he really wanted to convey how important the relatively easy procedure was to saving lives. So he went big. He compared his polyp to Osama Bin Laden and his colon to the Lincoln Tunnel. He said he wanted to find a way to get people to read about things that they are afraid of, and in this case, using more “radical” language was the solution.

“I blame journalists in part for their squeamishness and their inhibitions and their inclination to use euphemisms,” Clark said. He gave his series about AIDS as an example. Using terminology that was vague and ultimately meaningless “led to fear, which led to the ostracism of people who had AIDS.”

2. Mission statements aren’t just for organizing. Clark gave two frames for his strategy of developing mission statements for his stories. In the first frame, they are used to crystallize concepts and are more of a mini-mission to use with daily stories. But in the second, they can be thought of a way to figure out what kind of writer you want to be. They have professional and more specific, personal applications.

For every writer, I think both frames are useful. They are a way to put specific parameters on your work and your development. For all the navel-gazing journalists are accused of doing, I think this is actually something that can help us. Why write if you don’t know what you’re trying to say? Why try to communicate at all if you don’t know where you’re headed? I’m starting to understand what kind of journalist I want to be, and that’s due, in no small part, to the reflections and discussions we’ve had in intermediate writing.

3. Voice is exactly what it sounds like. Clark said he hated the term “style” for the kind of personality a writer puts into his or her work. He said that voice is the illusion that a writer is speaking directly to the reader right off the screen. Just because a story is neutral, Clark said, doesn’t mean it can’t have distinctive voice. He compared it to a grace note, those small musical notes that decorate a larger, more prominent note. It can be just one word or detail that someone else wouldn’t notice, he said.

In this lens, voice seems so much less complicated than I’ve been telling myself it is. I keep thinking that I have to develop some specific personal style that I can’t quite articulate; but really, it’s as easy as picking one word or trademark turn of phrase to get started. “You don’t have to strain yourself to make the work interesting or distinctive. It can be just the slightest touch,” Clark told us.

4. “Force the editor to put in on the front page.” One classmate asked Clark how we could distinguish ourselves at internships that would likely have us writing more news briefs that narrative features. Clark’s advice was simple: make them see what you can do. Give them no choice but to put in on the front page.

He and Jacqui agreed that we should take every opportunity we can to turn small, low-risk stories into the kind of writing we eventually want to do. Include one detail that gets someone’s attention. Get one editor on your side to help shepherd you through the process. That person then becomes your advocate because you’ve proven you have a little something extra. Those high-necessity, low-risk stories are good places to experiment because editors have little to lose by letting you take a different approach, and it’s those moves that help the rest of your stories gain traction.

5. Learn to push past negative reinforcement. We’ve all been the position where, head over heels in love with our story, we winced when an editor cut something we were attached to. In my case, this has tended to happen with what I thought were descriptive bits or “color,” to use the cliché. Because I am a competent reporter and writer, it’s easy to take those edits and decide to play it safe. Safe is easy, and safe isn’t frustrating.

After overhearing this concern of mine, Clark gave us a reprise and said we shouldn’t let negative reinforcement keep us from trying new things. Sometimes, editors have different visions of what a story should be. And sometimes, what we think works well just doesn’t. We should keep at it, learn to identify what the essential creative aspects are and be ready to articulate what our purpose what with those details.

I feel like our class has hit the jackpot lately in terms of professional wisdom and advice. I can’t figure out if it’s their no-nonsense approach to being honest with us about our craft, or the realization that even professionals have things they feel vulnerable about, but whatever it is, I’ll take as much as I can get.

Tips from a pro: Rethink your story idea, write in chunks, ignore objectivity

This week, our class got the express privilege of Skyping with Ruth Padawer, a journalist and Columbia University professor who writes for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. As it turns out, in addition to the story about parents dealing with their sons’ gender fluidity that we read for this class, I read another of her stories over the summer about reducing pregnancies from twins to a single child.

From her work, I knew she was an amazing writer, but she was also a lovely person who took about 30 minutes from her day to talk with a bunch of narrative-writing hopefuls. We talked in detail about her work and her process, and I loved getting a glimpse into how a professional works — it’s really not so different from how we work. My big takeaways:

1. The story you think you have isn’t always the story you should write. Sometimes, it takes more reporting to figure out what you really should be writing about. This usually makes me panic, but it’s good to know this can be a problem for everyone. Ruth said it took an “obscene amount of time, frankly,” to do her reporting for this story, including the material that didn’t end up being useful. This, I can relate to.

2. Not every story needs a specific structure. Ruth said that when she writes a draft, she tries “to think of what each story needs” in terms of structure. She said the magazine doesn’t have particular story requirements, but many stories tend to have four to five sections. Aside from that, Ruth said she focuses the most on writing “deeply relevant” ledes and nut grafs — she tries to figure out what exactly the story should say. Here is a loose structure she outlined for us:

  • First section: lede, nut graf, the proof that the story is worth it to draw the reader and add credibility, good quote to nail the point and the conflict, some of the subject’s experience.
  • Second section: the evidence that supports your nut.
  • Third section: drier or more technical information
  • Fourth section: the final kicker that drives the point home and moves the story forward.

3. Instead of writing linearly, write in chunks. Whenever you have a character or scene or bit of information, just write it out in small pieces. Then, take all those chunks on notecards or bits of paper and rearrange them on a flat surface until you find an arrangement that works. The physical manipulation of the parts can show you what fits or what doesn’t. It seems like a really good aerial approach that could help me make sense of longer stories with lots of scenes and characters.

4. I’m not the only research geek. Ruth said she uses research to delay her writing and loves learning everything she can about a subject. I, too, am an academic journal junkie and love reading studies and data and trying to determine for myself what the literature said and what research is worth its salt. The hard part, of course, is narrowing down what you’ve got into the most important parts that make it into the story.

5. Immersion journalism naturally leads you away from the tragically misunderstood “objectivity.” When you report in-depth with subjects, you get to see their life from their perspective, which means you can’t be objective; you can practice objectivity by doing enough reporting to back up or support your subject’s perspective and experiences. Immersion journalism lends itself to doing much more personal reporting, so trying to distance yourself completely is impossible. You get credibility by researching and doing accurate reporting, and that’s how you make your reporting “objective.” Ruth said that if a reader argues with what’s in a story it’s fine — if they argue with what you, as a journalist, did, then that’s a problem.

So thanks for chatting with us, Ruth! In another exciting twist, our class will get to talk to Roy Peter Clark this week. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get enough of talking to other writers, professionals and amateurs, about writing.

On the progress vein, I’m starting my observation Tuesday and have finally nailed down a second story form. I feel like I’m really moving forward and accomplishing something. Soon, I’ll get to put everything I’ve learned about outlining, drafting and writing into play.

What matters in writing a ‘moment’ is whether it feels real

This week our class was cancelled because of (more) snow. So while I can’t draw on class discussions for this post, I have been thinking a lot about how to write “moments,” or small, descriptive narrative scenes.

I’ll start with some moments I stumbled across this week in leisure and schoolwork that I found especially moving. I have taken out some block quotes from the stories, but please read them in their entirety with the links provided:

♦♦♦♦

From an August 8, 2012, New York Times story by Ruth Padawer about boys who fall somewhere in the middle on the gender spectrum:

“Toward the end of the first week of kindergarten, Alex showed up in class wearing hot-pink socks — a mere inch of a forbidden color. A boy in his class taunted, “Are you a girl?” Alex told his parents his feelings were so hurt that he couldn’t even respond. In solidarity, his father bought a pair of pink Converse sneakers to wear when he dropped Alex off at school.”

♦♦♦♦

A reference to “My Struggle,” a book by Karl Ove Knausgaard From a February 28, 2013, New Yorker story by Sasha Weiss about those who criticize Anne Hathaway’s unapologetically cheerful demeanor:

“Karl takes his little daughter, Vanje, to a classmate’s birthday party. She is a shy and introverted child, but she longs to play with other children, and looks forward to the party with a mix of trepidation and eagerness. She chooses to wear a new pair of sparkling golden shoes. When she arrives, she is thrust into a room with other children, who are all playing wildly. Karl watches her as she tries to figure out how to break in:

For a while she stood observing them. Then it was as if she had decided to take the plunge.

‘I’ve got golden shoes!’ she said.

She bent forward and took off one shoe, held it up in the air in case anyone wanted to see. But no one did. When she realized that, she put it back on.”

♦♦♦♦

I saw a film called “The Garden of Eden” that made its North American debut during the True/False Film Fest yesterday evening. The film’s director is Ran Tal, a native Israeli who grew up near the Gan Shlosha, a state park known as “Sakhne.” (Trailer from the film’s website, linked above. See its facebook page here.)

I can’t show you this moment, but in one scene an older man told the story about how he left his home in Germany during World War II to move to Israel. He talks while we see him calmly swimming and bobbing in the rock-surrounded waters Sakhne. Right at the end of his monologue, the man tells us that he knows his brother worked in the crematorium at the concentration camp Bergen Belsen. Having this job meant his brother knew the day his father had died, and by passing on that information the man can observe his father’s yahrtzeit (memorial of the day of his death).

I can’t do this moment justice with such a plain description, but watching it brought me close to tears. (I highly recommend you see this film if you get the chance.)

Tal talked about how he got the scenes for his documentary. In some cases, he filmed the swimming scenes before he did the personal interviews (often at the interviewees’ homes), but sometimes it was the other way around. In every case, the “action” was separate from the interviews.

It was done this way, Tal said, so that he could have more personal conversations with each subject. He wanted them to open up to him about their lives and stories of separation, which could be best accomplished when they trusted and liked him and felt comfortable.

Tal said he had to sometimes go back to an interviewee for further information. The stories were edited together in a monologue format, but nonetheless, they felt genuine.

♦♦♦♦

What I’m learning about moments is that what makes them special isn’t some kind of extraordinary action or especially powerful prose. When we include these moments or “scenes” in our writing, we’re giving the reader a taste of honest, human feeling.

I don’t relate to the little girl with the gold shoes because she’s a fascinating character study or a tragic hero; I relate to her because I know what it feels like to be unabashedly happy about something and have that joy met with uncaring stares from others. I know how it feels to have my feelings hurt in such a way that I can’t bring myself to even tell anyone else. And I know how much it means to be able to properly mourn a loved one.

When I go about my reporting, I want to capture these moments that will resonate with my readers and make them remember how they’ve felt in similar situations. They can be long and full of dialogue, or short, sweet glimpses into someone’s day. I’m telling myself to be open and focus more on the quality of what I find, rather than the quantity.

My observations (should) begin soon, and having come across such beautiful examples of scenes this week, I’m more excited than ever to get the chance to practice.